Does Adrian Warnock take the Bible literally?

I had intended to drop the issue of Adrian Warnock versus Rob Bell. But Adrian’s latest post Is Rob Bell a neo-liberal who does not take the Bible literally? goes into a lot more detail about why he refuses to accept Bell as an evangelical. As such it reads a bit like a response to my post Rob Bell, Adrian Warnock and limits of evangelicalism, although it does not mention what I wrote.

It is really interesting to see what Adrian considers to disqualify someone from being an evangelical. One of them seems to be speaking to ordinary people and observing the world, and then allowing that to inform one’s theology. Another is to ask questions. Of course Jesus based much of his teaching on what he observed in the world and from ordinary people, and asked lots of questions. Is Rob Bell wrong to follow the same methods?

Perhaps most telling is the apparent claim in the title of his post that anyone who “does not take the Bible literally” is not an evangelical but a “neo-liberal”. More specifically, Adrian’s charge against Rob Bell is that

he no longer takes the Bible literally whenever it is possible to do so.

The problem with this argument is that no evangelical, indeed no one as far as I know, actually takes the Bible literally, even with the qualification “whenever it is possible to do so”. I made this point in one of the first blog posts I ever wrote, at Better Bibles Blog in 2005, Does God have a long nose? Pinocchio by Enrico MazzantiSee also the related post, here at Gentle Wisdom in 2008, Love takes a long thyme, in which I also wrote about

the Pinocchio approach to Scripture: the more you misrepresent it, the longer your nose and so the greater your love!

Well, I am not seriously accusing anyone of that. But I do claim, as explained in those posts, that anyone who does not believe that God has a long nose, literally, does not take literally the whole Bible in its original language texts. This is the clear teaching of Exodus 34:6 in the Hebrew, and it is possible to take it literally, at least as a description of the body of Jesus, God become flesh. Does anyone do so? Not as far as I know. Not even Adrian himself takes the Bible literally. That means that on his definition there are probably no evangelicals at all, and we should all be described with Rob Bell as “neo-liberals”.

Another example: the biblical word for “hell” as place of punishment is literally Gehenna, the name of a specific and literal valley outside the walls of Jerusalem. As it is quite possible to take this literally, why don’t “Reformed” evangelicals teach that their place of “eternal conscious punishment” is physically located in that valley?

So, the real issue between different evangelicals is which parts of the Bible they take literally. But where does one draw the line? And what exactly does it mean to take the Bible literally?

Surely it is better to accept the current standard definitions of evangelicalism, such as the British Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith and the American Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. In these the Bible is described as inspired by God, as authoritative for believers, and in some cases as infallible or inerrant. But these statements do not prescribe that it must always be taken literally, no doubt because the good evangelical scholars who prepared them recognise that this is impossible.

13 thoughts on “Does Adrian Warnock take the Bible literally?

  1. Thanks Peter. I have used the word “reasonable” now. The very idea that the Bible CAN be authoritative requires it to be literal in many places, and that it can be expected to teach something clear.

  2. Adrian, thank you. What you have now written is quite a lot better:

    [Bell] no longer takes the Bible literally whenever it is reasonable to do so.

    The problem here is, what does “reasonable” mean? It implies an exercise of the God-given human ability to reason. I’m sure Rob Bell would say that he has used his reason to judge that the passages on hell are to be taken less literally than you choose to take them – although as I pointed out you still don’t take them completely literally. There is of course room for a good reasoned debate about this, and I would welcome that. But such a debate cannot take place in an atmosphere poisoned with accusations of “verging on blasphemy” and being a “neo-liberal”.

  3. I see Adrian’s approach as another attempt to see the world in black and white – dividing christians into evangelicals (us – good) and liberals (them – bad). To my mind, Bell has a far greater commitment to Biblical authority than Warnock, because Bell is willing to let the Bible challenge his preconceptions.

    One other point, which you touched on at the end of your post – there is a huge gulf in Christianity between the theological world and the church world. I think this is a really bad thing and causes a lot of problems, not least the simplistic approach to faith that is found in many churches (and perhaps adopted by Warnock). On this note, I’ve been trying to find out where Tope Koleoso, Adrian’s pastor, studied, and I can’t find it anywhere on the internet. Does anyone know?

  4. Sidefall, I think you are spot on here.

    One of the regrettable sides of the modern charismatic movement, certainly here in the UK and quite likely elsewhere in the world, is that many church leaders have not had any formal theological training. They may have had excellent mentoring and basic Bible courses within their particular stream. But they have often not been exposed to broader theological debate, not even at an evangelical school of theology like the one I went to. I don’t know exactly which individuals this applies to.

    Now theological study may not be for everyone, and I certainly don’t want to disqualify from all Christian ministry those who have not done it. But I do consider it important that each local church has, within it or coming regularly from outside, teaching from a properly informed theological perspective.

  5. Hard to believe that a conversation like this is still possible in today’s world: seriously, does anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together take the Bible ‘literally’? Taking the Bible literally has never been part of the historical Christian faith: you only need to read Paul’s letters or the Early Church Fathers to discover that!

    As per my facebook comment on Adrian’s post, it’s an amalgam of different perspectives, different takes, different literary genres, all part of our ever-emerging understanding of who and what God is along with who and what we are in relation to God. Does anyone really think that God drew a line under communications with the human race 2,000-odd years ago? Just as Jesus re-read scripture in his context, we must do the same — and we must expect God to continue revealing Godself to us… and part of that ongoing revelation, part of our emerging understanding of that revelation, is surely the distinctly biblical hope that in the end, Love Wins… :)

  6. Phil, thank you for your comment. Of course no one really takes the Bible literally. Even Adrian has backed down to a position that really means no more than we should take it literally where we think that is appropriate.

    I might not go quite as far as you seem to in lowering the status of the Bible, although I completely agree that it needs to be read in context. But one thing which unites Adrian and me, and divides us from some of Adrian’s “Reformed” friends, is that we believe that God continues to speak to his people today, through prophecy and other gifts of the Holy Spirit.

  7. Peter, let me make it clear that I don’t know what qualifications Topo has and we mustn’t make assumptions here. My main point is that the teaching presented in many churches (not just charismatic ones) is very shallow and leads to people whose understanding of faith is very limited. This causes the protective behaviour we see in these debates – people need to put a defensive wall around their beliefs as the beliefs themselves don’t always stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps the labelling Rob Bell as a “neo-liberal” is a good example of this.

  8. Thanks Peter. I am someone who could, I guess, be described as a ‘neo-liberal’, although I’m not sure what what the term means. I tend to think of myself theologically as lost in the post, but safe in a sorting office somewhere…

  9. A theologian called Roger Olson sees evangelicalism splitting into “neo-fundamentalist” and “post-conservative” factions. I think I’m firmly in the latter camp.

  10. Phil, you are probably a bit more liberal than me, but I won’t try to argue you out of it, still less to condemn you to hell for it.

    Sidefall, if pushed I would probably also put myself into the post-conservative group, but I don’t want to be pigeon-holed too much.

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